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Sketches of Virginia
Chapter XX. - George A. Baxter - From his Birth to his Rectorship

The man that succeeded William Graham in Washington Academy, and John H. Rice in the Union Theological Seminary, was second to neither in mental endowments, magnanimity of soul, or j tenderness of heart. A pupil of Graham and tutor of Rice, he admired their character, appreciated their labors, and was beloved by both. Equal to Graham in mental acumen and comprehension, he lacked somewhat of his bold daring: superior to Rice in metaphysical and logical acuteness and taste for metaphysical discussions, ne was greatly his inferior in constructive power, and activity, and efficiency in benevolence. With as clear a knowledge of human nature as it is, and as it came from the hands of the creator, he knew less of men in society than Rice, and more than Graham. With a guileless spirit and brave heart he marched with logical precision to the conclusion of an argument, irrespective of those circumstances Rice would have explained to his hearers; and he announced the right and the obligation, with a simplicity as remarkable as it was complete. Governing less strongly than Graham, and moulding less plastically than Rice, he nevertheless bound the hearts of his pupils with chains of gold. Afraid to offend Graham, who always put his foot on the neck of a rebel, not knowing how to escape Rice who would surely mould them to his will, the students yielded to that authority of Baxter that counted punishment his strange work. Graham read little and thought much. Baxter read much and thought much, and forgot nothing. Rice read more than either; and elaborated with his pen for the instruction of the public more than both.

All three excelled as preachers. Graham starting high, then descending in the scale of excellence and interest; and then ascending higher than ever. Rice and Baxter constantly ascending from the first. All were unequal in their performances ; but seldom appeared unequal to the time and circumstance, and subject. Their knowledge and judgment, and piety preserved them from dullness; but some exciting circumstance called forth all their powers. Then Graham cut like a two-edged sword dipped in the balm of Gilead ; Baxter, resistless in argument, overwhelming in pathos, often preached in tears, and was heard in tears and sighs ; Rice brought forth his stores of theology and literature, and deep feeling arranged with wonderful skill, himself calm, self-possessed, his hearers often in tears. Their mental power, tenderness, strong feeling, combined in different degrees, were all under the controlling influence of the love and mercy of God. Graham in private, sometimes in public', indulged his power of sarcasm with exasperating effect. Rice, in public assemblies restrained his, and in private circles subdued it to playfulness. Baxter had none, but was quick and playful in retort, and enjoyed wit and humor. Graham and Rice were always on their guard. Baxter, in his simplicity, often seemed credulous. His unsuspicious manner might have led to the conclusion that the toils of the designing were around him, when suddenly awakening as from a revery, with a rapidity astonishing, he would unravel the whole tissue of sophistry, and laugh with exquisite delight at the exposure, and the awkward position of him that presumed on his ignorance of facts and of logical precision. Quicker in his mental operations than either his master or his pupil, he loved the truth with equal fervor, and counted no cost in its defence. A powerful opponent, seldom foiled, and never exasperated in debate. What Rice could sketch grandly, Baxter could see clearly and defend strongly. Graham could open the gates, and say like the empress-mother, “This is the way to Byzantium.” Baxter and Rice could walk in the path, put up way-marks and clear obstructions for others to follow. All saw the church arise around them and by their instrumentality; and each has a name among those who have done well for their race and for their God.

George Addison Baxter was born in the county of Rockingham, Virginia, in the great valley of the Shenandoah, July 22d, 1771. His parents, George Baxter and Mary Love, were emigrants from Ireland, at a Very early age, landing on the banks of the Delaware. The parents of George dying soon after their arrival, he was received into the family of Thomas Rodgers. This gentleman had married Elizabeth Baxter, and emigrated from Londonderry to Boston, Massachusetts, in the year 1721. In about seven years he removed to Philadelphia, and there reared a family of eight children, of whom John Rodgers, the companion of Davies, was one. George Baxter, when of mature years, followed his emigrating countrymen in their search for a home on the frontiers of Virginia, and chose his residence in Mossy Creek congregation, once a part of the Triple Forks, and afterwards of Augusta Church, and now a separate charge. Here he was married ; his father-in-law having previously settled in the same neighborhood. Here he became ruling elder, Benjamin Erwin being pastor. Here he answered the calls made on the militia during the Revolutionary war for active service. In the course of his life he represented his county in the legislature about fifteen times. He reared his family according to the customs of his fatherland, and the habit of his emigrating countymen, in industry and economy; giving all an English education, in a manner as liberal as circumstances would permit; and choosing, if possible, one child of talents, whose desires were favorable, for a liberal education and a professional life. Of all the professions, the ministry held, in his estimation, the highest place.

Mary Love, his wife, left among her descendants a memory precious for her exemplary piety and prudent conduct as a wife and mother, in situations calling every day for the exercise of Christian graces, and seldom offering occasion for the lofty display of any accomplishment. The lives of her children were her best eulogy. George Addison was the second son, and the third of eight children, all of .whom he survived. Vigor, frankness, uprightness and industry characterized all the members of the family, reared in the simplicity and hardships of a frontier life. The happy influence of the revolutionary trials and hardships was often alluded to by Dr. Baxter in his advanced years. The mother laid the foundation of morals and religion in her children while they were young; and expressed the most decided unwillingness to part with any of them till their faith in Christ was established. Her unremitting attention to the spiritual concerns of her children was followed by the unspeakable reward of seeing them all consistent professors of religion, according to the faith she trusted for her own salvation. The Bible, the Sabbath, the Assembly’s Catechism, the preaching of the gospel, family worship and private instruction were things of solemn interest to the family from the earliest recollections; and connected indissolubly with the memory of their parents, the influence was tender and perpetual. The image of the mother stood before the children rejoicing when their faith triumphed, and weeping when they sinned. Blessed is the mother that knows her power.

Of the sayings, doings, and mental exercises of Dr. Baxter, in his childhood, there is no memorial. One event only is remembered as peculiar. It fixed a mark that went with him to his grave. Put in mind of it every day of his life, and exhibiting it to others in his slightly limping gait, he never referred to it in conversation. Any direct notice of his halting step was painful to him, and all curiosity repressed with dignity. “He got a fall in early life,” was all the tradition generally known. He could no more forget the cause than he could remove the consequences. One Sabbath morning, when he was about five years of age, the negro woman came running to the house, crying out, “the bears have got Master George.” Following his cry of distress, he was found stretched on the ground. His statement was, that in chase of a squirrel he had climbed the tree under which he was lying, and venturing on a feeble limb had been precipitated to the ground; that he had lain there some time in great suffering, unable to move homeward, or attract notice by his cries. One of his limbs was badly fractured. With maternal care the wound speedily healed; but the injured limb was ever shorter than the other. A high heel to his shoe, and a slight swing to his gait remedied the evil; till late in life it was not generally observed that he limped, and few knew his abiding memento of the fourth command.

To a peculiar train of circumstances Dr. Baxter attributed much of that thirst for literature which made him earnestly desire a liberal education, and willing to spend his share of the patrimony in its accomplishment. From the earliest period of Virginia history the planters and farmers supplied themselves with laborers, either from the' African race, or that class of people called “indented servants,” or “redemptioners.” Coming from some part of Europe, not unfrequently from the British isles, and unable to pay the passage money, they made arrangements with the captains and ship-owners to serve in the colony, till such time as their wages should equal the expense of their transportation. In some cases, the agreement was to serve a given time, any person who would pay the captain the demands for the passage. In other cases the amount of expense was agreed upon, and masters were sought that would pay the sum for the shortest time of service. Large companies often came together. The landing places were frequented by those in want of laborers, and presented scenes of thrilling interest, as young and old, men and women, were parcelled out at the bidding of the masters, and the will of the captain. Each redemptioner was prized according to his ability to labor, or the caprice of those seeking servants. Persons of. sterling character and skill in the mechanic arts, were found in these companies, and having served their allotted time, with credit and cheerfulness, became wealthy, and held an honorable position in society, the descendants being unreproached for the faithful servitude of their ancestors.

Colonel Love, the father-in-law of Mr. Baxter, purchased an indented servant, a young Irishman, while his son-in-law was absent at the Legislature. About this young man there were various opinions,—some supposing him insane—others that he was suffering under some calamity—and others that he was above his condition, and had fled for crime. His appearance and manners were those of a gentleman. Mr. George Baxter became interested in the young man, and learning some facts of his history, and* that he was well educated, purchased his indentures. Giving them to him, he said, “You are now perfectly free, Sir—but I shall be. glad to have you stay and teach my children.” The young man engaged in teaching. He assumed the name of McNemara, and would give no account of his parentage. The cause of emigration he said was a calamity he would not explain ; it was supposed, from circumstances, to have been of a political nature. He said that he expected to find in Baltimore an uncle. Upon reaching the place, he learned that his uncle had removed to Charleston. He was penniless and friendless, and to his great mortification, was sold to pay his passage.

Under the instruction of this young man Dr. Baxter acquired the rudiments of education; and from hearing him quote the English classics with great appropriateness, became desirous of drinking at the fountain of “English undefiled.’* A thirst for knowledge came with his desire to read the classics. His mother encouraged this strong desire of her child, with secret hopes and prayers, that he might in mature years preach the gospel of the Son of God. We have no further account of his “log school-house days,” or his progress in learning while growing to the stature of a man, at the base of the North Mountain, on the head streams of the Shenandoah.

After some years the teacher accompanied one of Mr. Baxter’s sons to Richmond, the market of that part of the Valley. He avoided as much as possible meeting with his countrymen. Stepping into a store he was accosted by the merchant as an old acquaintance. Alarmed and distressed he asked a private interview. The merchant would give no further account respecting the teacher to young Baxter, than, that his father was a merchant of the first standing in Cork. Soon after this interview, the young man prepared to return to Ireland. Upon bidding Mr. Baxter and friends farewell, he said, if he should be successful in an enterprise in which he was about to embark, they should hear from him; if he failed, they should know nothing more of him. . Some time after, on looking over a list of persons executed in Ireland for rebellion, the friends in Rockingham were induced, from various circumstances, to believe he was among the sufferers.

George Addison Baxter preferred a liberal education to a farmer’s life. His father assented to his choice, the expenses of his education to be the principal part of his patrimony. In the year 1789, he became a pupil of William Graham, at Liberty Hall, near Lexington. His literary course, pursued with ardor and delight, was more than once interrupted by failure of health, which sent him for a season to the pursuits of agriculture. His boarding-house was four miles from the Hall, and this distance he regularly walked morning and evening; but the exercise was not sufficient to counteract the lassitude consequent upon his intense application. His progress in the acquisition of language is thus related by one that had the means of accurate knowledge: — “On his first coming to Liberty Hall, one of the trustees, in advising as to his course of study, told him if he would make himself completely master of his Latin Grammar, read some Latin books, which he mentioned, together with some other study, during the session, he might think himself successful. He remained but six weeks, and in that time completed his course, and progressed a good deal further, making himself, in ten lessons, so completely master of his Latin Grammar that it was never afterwards necessary for him to review.” Unless he had paid some attention to the Latin under M’Nemara, or his successors, this progress was altogether extraordinary.

About the time of his becoming a student at Liberty Hall, Mr. Baxter made profession of his faith, and united with the church of his parents, Mossy Creek, under the care of Benjamin Erwin. Of his spiritual exercises there is no record or tradition. In the fall of 1789 the happy revival that had spread so widely east of the Ridge, began to be felt in the valley. Mr. Graham made his memorable visit to Prince Edward, and had been a co-worker in the harvest at the Peaks of Otter, and returned to Lexington with a company of young people rejoicing in the Lord. “The Blue Ridge rang with their songs of praise.” The voice of a young man, in a public prayer-meeting in Lexington, was that night heard for the first time, between whom and George A. Baxter the acquaintance of students was mingled with the highest respect. From that night onwards, for more than two years, the converting influences of the Holy Spirit accompanied the preaching of the gospel throughout the great valley of Virginia. Graham was in his best days. J. B. Smith came over occasionally. And Legrand, young, ardent, and successful, went as evangelist wherever there was an open door. Not a congregation was unmoved.

Mr. Baxter, whether pursuing his studies at Liberty Hall, or laboring on the farm, was in the midst of this great awakening. His ideas of revivals, and of preaching, were formed when the standard of doctrine and practice and Christian experience was settled for generations, in Virginia. Professors of religion, of long and respectable standing, were greatly impressed, and not a few as deeply exercised as new converts. The minister at Timber Ridge, Mr. Carrick, had great troubles of soul about his own spiritual condition. In simplicity and frankness, yet privately like Nicodemus, he sought an interview with Mr. Smith, of Prince Edward, and stated his fears, not that he held wrong doctrines, but that, observing the mental exercises of the converts, he feared he had mistaken the exercises of a true Christian man, and that the truths of God had not produced their proper effect upon himself, in his previous experience. He, after the conference, found peace in the gospel he had been preaching; his distress gave place to joy; and he went on proclaiming the gospel of the Son of God with a glad heart. Dr. Baxter never referred to this revival but with emotion; his voice trembled as he spoke. A reference to it would kindle a fire in his heart. Throughout his life the mention of a revival anywhere would enlist all the sympathies of his soul. In his later years, when God was pleased to revive his slumbering church, after a long period of inaction, some of the young agents that knew not the days of power Baxter had witnessed, proclaimed him a convert to revivals, expressing surprise that the old preacher should become a warm advocate of what appeared to them new. He, in the simplicity characteristic of him, was but living over again the days of his youth, and in his modesty claiming nothing for himself in the present or the past.

The Rev. Robert Stuart, of Kentucky, says part of the time Mr. Baxter was a member of Liberty Hall Academy, they were roommates, and bears testimony to his great application and success in pursuing his studies. “He was instrumental in establishing in the Academy a debating society, of which he was a prominent member, and early showed that talent for debate which rendered him, in after life, a distinguished member of the judicatories of the church. He had naturally a slight hesitancy or stammering in his speech. In order to correct this defect and acquire a distinct enunciation, he imitated Demosthenes in frequently speaking with pebbles in his mouth; and to strengthen the volume of his voice, to declaim by the noise of the waterfalls. I state these incidents, being a witness to them, as a clear and distinct evidence of the ardor and zeal with which he cultivated the talents with which his Maker had endowed him for future usefulness.”

Again Mr. Stuart says, in writing to a daughter of Dr. Baxter — “As to his theological course of study, I can give you no satisfactory account. Although my impression is that we were nearly of the' same age, (this day, August 14th; 1845, I have entered upon my 74th year,) yet I was much farther advanced in my literary course than he, having commenced earlier in life. I had finished my theological course in company with your uncle Ramsey, (the Rev. Samuel Ramsey,) who had been my room-mate and companion during the whole theological course and trial before Presbytery. We were licensed to preach the gospel on the same day, April 20th, 1795. There were none in the theological class at this period but Mr. Ramsey and myself.”

The time that the degree of A. B. was conferred on Mr. Baxter, is uncertain. The early records of the Academy were loosely kept, and some are, in all probability, irrevocably lost. Dr. Speece in his autobiography says, “I entered the school,” (New London Academy) “in November 1792. At the end of my first year Mr. Graham left the school and was succeeded by Mr. George A- Baxter. God’s providence continued me at school a year and a half longer.” By this it appears Mr. Baxter was at New London the latter part of 1793. He went from Liberty Hall with a high reputation as a tutor, having served in that office, for the lower classes, while he was completing his own course under Mr. Graham. He had for his associate, in Bedford, for a length of time, Mr. Daniel Blain, afterwards Professor in Washington Academy and minister of the gospel. Under the supervision of these gentlemen, the reputation of the Academy was still more widely extended. Some pleasing instances of careful attention to the moral and spiritual concerns of the youths under their care are remembered by the surviving pupils. An elder in the Church says, that going on a Sabbath morning for his books, left at the Academy, Mr. Baxter invited him to the room, occupied by himself and Mr. Blain, to attend morning prayers, and that the conversation of the two men, and the prayer offered by one, made impressions on his heart that resulted in his conversion. John H. Rice became a pupil; and Mr. Baxter made him an associate. Drs. Speece and Rice cherished through life the warmest friendship for their instructor, to whose care and attention they owed much of their eminence in literary acquirements. Some private memoranda in possession of his family lead to the conclusion that his degree of A. B. was not conferred till the year 1796.

The records of Lexington Presbytery from December 1792 to June 1800, cannot be found; and the time of his being received a candidate, and the various parts of trial required of him previously to his licensure are unknown. Mr. Stuart says, “ my physician gave it as his opinion, that unless I quit speaking, I would soon fall into confirmed consumption. He advised me to spend the winter in the South, which I did, the winter of 1796. In the spring, April

1797, 1 returned to Rockbridge; and on my return I had called at your grandmother’s, which was a kind of resting place to the clergy.” Having met Mr. Baxter the next morning on his way there, he turned back— “I spent the day and night with him, and he started the next morning with me, and we travelled together to Lexington. At that time I am assured he had been teaching east of the Blue Ridge, and had not obtained license.” Private memoranda in his family say, he was licensed at New Monmouth, April 1797. Immediately after being licensed, he made a tour through parts of Maryland and Virginia, taking collections for the advantage of New London Academy.

The earliest presbyterial record respecting him, is dated October 20th 1797, at Pisgah, Bedford County, at a meeting of Hanover Presbytery. “A letter was received from Mr. George A. Baxter formerly a licentiate under the care of Lexington Presbytery, containing a dismission from Presbytery, and expressing his desire to put himself under our care; which request being agreed to, he was accordingly received as a probationer under our particular charge.” Ad this meeting Mr. Samuel Ramsey, mentioned by Mr. Stuart, accepted a call from the Church in Grassy Valley, Tennessee; and Dr. Alexander’s plan for the appropriation of the charitable fund of Presbytery was adopted. The only other notice of him on the records of Hanover is dated May 9th 1799, at the Cove meeting-house, Albemarle, and is'a dismission to put himself under the care of Lexington Presbytery. Mr. Baxter confined himself to his Academy, preaching as occasion required, but not encouraging, any call from a church, or vacancy, in the bounds of Hanover.

Having found his way to — “the resting place of the clergy” — Widow Fleming’s residence in Botetourt, he continued his visits for special reasons, other than the hospitality of this family of standing and wealth. Dr. Hall in his journeyings to and from Philadelphia, as commissioner from Orange Presbytery, used to rest with the family in his simple character of minister of the gospel, and always found a welcome. Cary Allen in his journeyings to and from Kentucky as a missionary, rested here as a missionary, and was welcome to all the refreshment the family could give. His agreeable entertainment resulted in his asking, and, in 1794, obtaining the hand of the eldest daughter. After the death of Mr. Allen, this lady became the wife of Mr. Ramsey mentioned by Mr. Stuart. Mr. Baxter obtained the object he'went for, and on the 27th of January, 1798, was married to Miss Anne Fleming. With her he lived about forty-five years.

Col. William Fleming to whose daughter Mr. Baxter was united, was a Scotchman emigrating to Virginia in early life. Of the nobility of Scotland, he received an education becoming the rank of the family, and sought in America a more ample field for his exertions, than his native land could afford. Of fine manners, vigorous constitution, and enterprising spirit, and delighting and excelling in the sports common among the young men of Virginia, fond of society, and not unmindful of the fair, and not averse to those occasional indulgences at the plentiful board, that marked the age among the politer classes in the “.ancient dominion,” he became a favorite with the Governor. Rambling through the western domain of Virginia, he was enamoured with the mountain scenery and the productive valleys, and took his residence in Botetourt County, on the waters of the James. Getting possession of fine tracts of land, for which his friendship with the governor afforded great facilities, he became wealthy. His enterprise and social manners made him popular. He led a regiment in the expedition to Point Pleasant; and in the bloody battle received a wound, the effects of which followed him to his grave, and hastened his death.

In the fall of 1798, the New London Academy could boast of a greater number of students than Liberty Hall; and Mr. Baxter had a greater reputation as a teacher than any person in the great Valley. The trustees of Liberty Hall, Oct. 19th, 1798, offered to him the professorship of Mathematics, with which was connected Natural Philosophy and Astronomy. Mr. Edward Graham with tutors had carried on the instruction of the students during the interregnum succeeding the resignation of President Graham. Mr. Baxter accepted the invitation and removed to Lexington. He was accompanied by Mr. Blain and ten students, and found Mr. Graham with seven students prepared to welcome him. The trustees had not provided a house for any of their teachers, but offered Mr. Baxter the use of the steward's house till it should be wanted for the use of the steward. On the records of the Academy he is called tutor.

On the 16th of October, 1799, he delivered in the Presbyterian church in Lexington, by request of the trustees of the Academy, an oration on the death of William Graham, the rector. He was — “requested to furnish the Board with a copy of this oration that it might be filed with the papers of the Academy.” This oration can no where be found. As a specimen of the writings of Mr. Baxter at that time it would gratify the public, and be a memorial of his teacher and friend. On the same day he was elected rector of the Academy, and entered upon his office. He was on the same day requested to draw up a code of laws for the government of the students of the Academy. With the rectorship of the Academy, Mr. Baxter accepted the invitation "of the church of New Monmouth, which included Lexington, to hold the pastoral office. The proceedings of the Presbytery are among the lost records. In the double capacity as Rector and President of the institution, and pastor of the church, he served his generation about thirty years. He found, in his public ministrations an ample reward for all his efforts to correct his enunciation. His impediment was not noticed. His voice was clear and his pronunciation distinct. Speaking was no labor to him. Preaching was pleasant as a spiritual and mental exercise, and as a physical act: in his late years few of his hearers had any knowledge of his early impediment. They all knew that he had never given any signs of exhaustion; and the occasional stoppage in his speech they attributed to deep emotion. He was frequently heard to say the exercise of preaching refreshed him, and that he was better prepared for a fatiguing exercise after officiating in the sanctuary than at its commencement.

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